Getting your children off to a good start in life is a big job. You schedule well-child check-ups, serve healthy foods, read together, offer hugs and kisses and praise liberally. Also important: helping them make physical activity an everyday event. "Movement and exercise for kids should be as much of a habit as brushing teeth daily–but more fun!" says Rae Pica, a movement education specialist and the author of A Running Start: How Play, Physical Activity, and Free Time Create a Successful Child (Marlowe & Company).
Why Exercise for Kids Matters
"Children were born to move," Pica says, noting that activity and movement helps kids develop not only their bodies, but also their brains, their ability to learn, and their social skills. "It impacts not only physical development, but cognitive, social, and emotional development–the whole child."
Early childhood is also the best time to establish good habits, so that kids seek and enjoy exercise instead of avoiding it. And of course, starting early means reaping the benefits early! "Moderate to vigorous physical activity feeds the brain with water, glucose, and oxygen, which we all need for optimal performance," says Pica. "And it gets those endorphins going, so we feel better too. That goes for both parents and kids.
How to Get Your Family Moving
Kids may be "born to move," but if they don't see their parents making fitness a priority, they'll turn quickly from jumping beans into couch potatoes. "What's important to important adults in children's lives becomes important to them," says Pica. So we grown-ups need to be good role models. Kids are paying attention (even if it seems like they never hear us ask them to do their homework!) so be sure they see parents who exercise, and enjoy it.
Beyond being a good role model, it's up to you to promote exercise for kids by making sure that they have the time, space, and opportunity to move and play. It's as easy, and as difficult, as that. If you're challenged by living in an urban setting or an extreme climate, you might need to be more creative about finding those spaces and opportunities. And we're all challenged by time—who can fit in everything we want and need to do? That's why making fitness a habit helps. We all find the time to brush those teeth; we need to find that time for fitness too.
Play Together, Play Apart
Playing with your children gives the kids playmates, demonstrates that you think play is important, and offers you the opportunity to get moving too. But kids also can, and should, play independently. "Children will learn a lot when they play on their own: problem-solving, conflict resolution, creative self-expression," says Pica.
Pica suggests the following three games for easy, active family fun. You can do them indoors or out. Parents can serve as facilitators and cheerleaders, or join in—whatever you're all in the mood for today!
- Forward, march! Have a parade around the house (inside or out). Equip everyone with toy musical instruments, or pots, pans, plastic containers, and wooden spoons. Take turns taking the lead and setting the pace. Make up silly marching steps and cheers.
- Forever blowing bubbles: You know the rules for this one. One person blows the bubbles, and everyone else chases them!
- Come dancing: Put on your favorite tunes and boogie down.